September 19, 2012. A day that will live in infamy. It was the day that everyone who owned an Apple iOS device and who wanted to upgrade to the latest version of the mobile operating system hit the "Upgrade" button, and found out after their next reboot that their devices were de-Googlefied.
Google Maps in iOS was no more.
This wouldn't have been an issue if Apple's own mapping and geolocation services were anywhere near as extensive or as accurate as Google's. But they aren't. The new Maps software has been lambasted by the media as well as the company's die-hard fans and it has been a public relations disaster for the company.
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Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, has issued a public apology, and has stated that the company "fell short on its commitment... to make world-class products that deliver the best experience possible" to its customers.
Is iOS 6 Maps a Cupertino speedbump? Yes. Has it given Apple a dose of reality orientation and given it a badly-needed dose of humility when arrogance has been its operating principle? Definitely.
Is the company going to stop selling iDevices like hotcakes and provide a wide opening for its competitors to knock it down to irrelevance?
With the release of iOS 6 and the Map Flap, the company's ability to innovate has been brought into question.
When we talk about Apple’s mobile operating system, we really have to think about it in the context of entire products, and that is because the company enjoys a level of vertical integration with hardware that is essentially unparalleled in the entire industry.
For Apple, iOS is the software that drives their mobile hardware and to which they have an exclusive and is tuned specifically to run on their custom-designed microelectronics. Nobody else can do any kind of value-add on top of it. That’s just the way it is.
So to compare it to something like Android which is designed to run on a much, much more diverse pool of hardware, which is then in turn further modified to meet OEM and carrier requirements which try in almost a futile attempt to differentiate from each other to make one smartphone or tablet stand out from the rest of the pack is a bit unfair.
There is no question that from a holistic device plus software standpoint that Apple is driving all of the innovation in the mobile industry with their products. The iPad 3 and the iPhone 5 have the displays and the SoC’s and the industrial design to beat and by far have the most compelling and innovative apps being developed for them.
Right now, not a single vendor can match what Apple is doing with mobile devices as a whole, no matter how you read into the rhetoric from the respective platform evangelists.
What we’ve learned from the Map Flap is that there are things that Apple does extremely well and there are things that they don’t. Clearly, the company has a deficiency when it comes to geolocation and geospatial services, and it was absolutely a major tactical error for the company to extricate itself from its Map data relationship with Google a year early.
However, Apple does have one thing which gives it a huge advantage, and that it has over 100 billion dollars in cash. That pretty much gives them the power to buy any properties it needs or sign multi-year partnerships with Google’s competitors (Think Yahoo! and Microsoft Bing!) to boost its geolocation services and search portfolio or fill any other services gaps by hiring people with the subject matter expertise that it needs to build their own.
Ramping up software development to fill these gaps takes a lot of effort and money, but when you have the financial resources to fund several Manhattan Projects at once, you can make these problems go away relatively quickly, although I think it may take two or three years for Apple to reach parity with Google on the geolocation services front.
Can Apple safely remove Google integration throughout iOS going forward without annoying customers?
What the company faces is the very real possibility of having to let Google Maps back in as a dedicated app and to provide unrestricted access to Google’s Map APIs. And by the same token, Google would be utterly stupid to reserve the Maps software and services strictly to Android and not take advantage of the huge iOS customer base for their various services offerings, as the company’s CEO, Eric Schmidt recently intimated.
So how does iOS currently stack up to Android and Microsoft's Windows Phone in terms of innovation and raw capabilities?
Android has the benefit of being Open Source, and there is much more variety to choose from in target hardware, so from the perspective of doing Vertical Market sort of applications, the mobile OS has a clear advantage.
However, I’ve seen some pretty impressive examples of vertical market apps built for iOS as well, such as in the restaurant industry and for kiosk-type apps, so I’m not so sure anymore that Android is always a better solution if you are going vertical.
Generally speaking I find current implementations of Android -- Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean to be buggier and less responsive than iOS. Part of this has to do with the fact that every vendor implementation of Android on every single new handset or tablet is subject to having to go through an arduous hardware/firmware/software device driver integration process with Android’s Linux kernel.
This is the exact same reason why it takes an eternity for some OEMs to update their products to new versions of Android.
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Some of this integration support comes from Google, but a lot of it has to come from component suppliers, as well as commercial Android device platform build kits targeted directly at OEMs (like Wind River) and then the OEM/Carrier has to tie it all together.
There’s much more in the recipe of each product that can go wrong, versus Apple which owns every step of the process and essentially can bake their own DNA from a semiconductor and OS integration standpoint.
Android’s main API and software development environment happens in a VM that works very much like Java, which is always going to be more resource intensive and less responsive than applications built in native C++ or Objective-C code that runs in iOS, no matter how many hooks the VM has into the hardware and how many optimizations are applied.
The system architecture of iOS is also designed so that the UI itself has thread priority, which is why iOS has such a smooth feel to it. Google has made some strides in UI responsiveness with Jelly Bean and their “Project Butter”, but it really cannot be compared to the performance characteristics of iOS.
While Android has an NDK for writing apps or components in C and C++ which are CPU-intensive, most apps which use it are games.
And Microsoft? While Windows Phone's market share has a long way to go in terms of being even a blip on Cupertino's radar, Redmond is doing some very interesting things with their mobile platform.
I’ve only had a minimal amount of exposure to Windows Phone devices. The user interface is unique, and it looks nothing like what either Apple or Google is doing with their respective platforms and I like it.
But from an ideological perspective, Apple and Microsoft are trying to accomplish very similar things. Very little or no OEM or Carrier customizations can occur, so that all Windows Phone customers, regardless of what device they use and what carrier they run on, will have a very similar experience. Where Windows Phone differentiates is strictly at the hardware level.
Microsoft has ensured from the ground up in its relationships with OEMs that the kind of fragmentation that exists in Android cannot occur with Windows Phone, and that device upgrades will occur more or less simultaneously in the future, which is also similar to the way Apple does iOS upgrades.
Like Apple, Microsoft has also provided a strong SDK with a completely integrated development environment with the rich WinRT API set that is shared with its Windows 8 operating system. This is not unlike how iOS and Mac OS have the same IDE and software development platform, although there are some differences in how APIs are actually implemented between Mac OS and iOS.
Microsoft is leveraging developer expertise the same exact way that Apple is doing.
The only difference is that Microsoft is re-booting its entire software development environment with WinRT from the ground up and there will be developer transition and application porting issues, whereas Apple’s developer base is highly entrenched and has years of experience building stuff cross-platform for both iOS and the Mac.
So are mobile operating systems are diverging and offering specialties to appeal to users?
I think Apple’s competitors would love to make the case that their products are different and are addressing the unique needs of users. I’m sorry, but that’s a load of crap..
No matter how different you make the user interface look, or how information is presented on a device, consumers as well as business users expect a certain basic level of functionality from their devices. They expect popular applications and services to run on them, they expect to be able to browse the web and do email and interact with their social networks. They expect to be able to take photos and videos with their phones.
Platform X versus platform Y versus platform Z may be stronger or weaker in one of these aspects in relation to another, but at the end of the day, all of these platforms have to be competitive in what they can do in relation to what everyone else is doing or they will lose relevance and have to play catch-up.
Exhibit A, Research in Motion.
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At what point do mobile users really become bored with iOS?
Apple’s customers are used to the way this software works, and there is a certain elegance and simplicity that none of the other vendors in the space are able to duplicate. Some of this is due to the fact that Apple holds key patents to fundamental aspects of how mobile operating systems are used and behave, as we have seen with the most recent patent infringement lawsuit against Samsung.
It is certainly true that the basic iOS user interface itself has not changed fundamentally since the launch of the product. There have been incremental changes introduced with each successive release that have added new features as the company has warranted it. I have no doubt that the company will devote whatever resources are necessary to keep iOS at the top of its game.
I think that iOS has held up so well only because its fundamental core components were so well-designed in the first place, with mature technologies that were borrowed from Mac OS X. For that reason, the developer tools and executable environment has been that much more robust than what Android or until very recently, what Microsoft has been able to offer with Windows Phone or RIM has with BlackBerry OS 10.
We don’t really know what the lifespan of a modern smartphone OS is. The only other examples we have to go from is RIM and the old-school BlackBerry OS Symbian, both of which realistically had a 10-year lifespan. If we look at old-school Palm OS, which I would barely qualify as a modern smartphone OS, they also peaked at about 10 years.
But none of these companies had the resources of Apple and they weren’t developing very fundamental, industry-disrupting technologies.
Does iOS need an overhaul?
If we look at how Mac OS X and iOS are evolving, they appear to be on a very close, parallel track with major intersections of functionality that seem to be ported over to the other on an annual basis.
So in a sense iOS and Mac OS X are constantly overhauling each other and swapping DNA so that the end-user gets a very seamless experience across their mobile and desktop computing platforms. I’ve also pointed out in the past that Mac OS X and iOS appear to be on a path of platform convergence. Based on what we have seen in iOS 6 and in the last two Mac OS X releases, all evidence seems to point towards Apple moving towards a unified platform.
If I were on Apple's Board of Directors, I would suggest that the company make strategic acquisitions using Apple’s war chest to fill the gaps with assets, personnel and partnerships that are needed to be secured in order to maintain platform dominance. And if I were in charge of Apple's software engineering, I would continue the plan of swapping essential software DNA back and forth between Mac and iOS.
Apple blew it with iOS 6 Maps, but as I said before, this is a speedbump, not a crash and burn. The history of this industry is peppered with many examples of companies which have recovered and remained successful despite of some pretty bonehead mistakes. Some of which were even written off as irrelevant and were genuinely expected to fall off the edge of a precipice.
I can think of another iconic technology company with very similar brand recognition that was considered a "dinosaur" or "behind the times" or even "arrogant" nearly 20 years ago, but is now the undisputed leader in enterprise technology services, hardware and software: IBM.
By the same token, Apple isn't a small company that can easily be deterred from its mission of excellence by messing up a popular software feature in its mobile operating system. We're talking about a powerful institutional entity with well over 100 billion dollars in cash.